Want to keep your brain sharp? Try flexing your muscles. You may not see a direct connection between brain health and your muscles, but research suggests that working your muscles against resistance may protect your memory. Problems remembering are one of the most common complaints of people over the age of 65. These memory lapses don’t necessarily mean you’re destined to get Alzheimer’s disease.
Some degree of memory impairment is a normal part of aging, but if you’re like most people, you want to keep your memory and cognitive abilities as “sharp” as possible as you age. Staying mentally stimulated by working puzzles and challenging your mind is one way, but moving your muscles may be just as effective.
Strength-Training, Aging, and Memory
Haven’t picked up a set of weights in a while? Working your muscles against resistance is just what the doctor ordered for keeping your memory sharp. In a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers put strength-training to the test.
In this study, a group of women between the ages of 70 and 80 took part in twice-weekly strength-training sessions where they lifted weights for an hour twice a week. A second group walked outdoors at a brisk pace while a third did balance exercises.
All of the women in this study had a mild cognitive impairment, meaning they had memory problems that were greater than expected for their age but didn’t have Alzheimer’s disease. After 6 months in one of these programs, researchers tested the women with memory tests and MRI imaging of their brains. The results?
The women who strength-trained using weights experienced significant improvements in their powers of recall and had more activity in areas of the brain associated with memory and learning. Women who walked or did balance exercises didn’t experience the same improvements in cognitive function. At least in this study, strength-training topped aerobic exercise like walking for boosting brain health.
What Does This Mean?
Time to get out the dumbbells? Working your muscles through resistance training has a number of health benefits. As you age, you lose muscle mass and this process accelerates after the age of 50. This is one reason older people become frail and are more susceptible to falling. Research shows that strength and balance training significantly reduces the risk of falling as you age. Working your muscles against resistance helps to preserve lean body mass as well as memory and cognitive function.
Think you’re too old to get benefits from strength-training? Think again. Research shows that even nursing home residents can improve strength and lean body mass through strength-training. More importantly, it helps them regain some of their functional capabilities. In addition, strength-training increases bone density and even improves the symptoms of arthritis and low back pain.
Physical Activity of All Types Has Benefits
Even though this study didn’t show that walking improved memory or cognitive function, other studies show that aerobic exercise increases brain volume in areas of the brain involved in memory and cognition.
The take-home message? Stay active. A combination of brisk walking or cycling for 30 minutes or more several times a week combined with strength-training using handheld weights or resistance bands is ideal.
Check with your doctor before starting and if you need guidance, sign up for a class at your local health club or sign up for a few sessions with a personal trainer to get started right. You’ll look better and feel better – and you might find it’s easier to remember where you put your car keys.
Medline Plus. “Balance, Strength Training Reduce Falls for Elderly, Study Finds”
Mature Fitness. “Strength Training Elderly Nursing Home Patients”
Archives of Internal Medicine, 2012; 172 (8)